Civility Isn’t Surrender

Members of various anti-fascist groups yell at police officers on the campus of Michigan State University outside of a Richard Spencer speech in East Lansing, Michigan on March 5, 2018. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)
Maintaining an even temperament and avoiding overstatement and invective can improve our political discourse.

America’s two great ideological tribes are in the midst of a similar conflict. It’s the battle over civility, and all too often reason, compassion, and grace are on the losing side. On the left, aggressive social-justice activists scorn engagement and dialogue as “respectability politics” and instead favor the shout-down, the boycott, and the online shame campaign.

On the right, online pugilists mock more mainstream or “establishment” conservatives as unwilling to do what it takes to win. They mock conservatives who refuse to make Trump-style attacks and decry Trump-style rhetoric as obsessed with “muh principles.” In the face of a ferocious Left, we just don’t have what it takes — or, as Milo Yiannopoulos said earlier this week in a long piece calling me “the most reliably frustrating person in conservative media,” we’re more prepared to “lose gracefully” than to “be seen as lacking in manners.”

First, let’s acknowledge that there’s more than a kernel of truth in these critiques. Civility isn’t always a virtue. There are times when injustice demands a dramatic response. The modern image of Jesus Christ as essentially the nicest person who ever lived is laughably one-dimensional. He compared the Pharisees to “whitewashed tombs.” Jesus cleansed the Temple “with a whip made out of cords.” He modeled grace and compassion. He also modeled righteous anger.

Moreover, it’s also true that calls for civility are often one-sided, manipulative, and made in bad faith. It turns out that each ideological tribe is often quite tolerant of the vicious voices on its own side and positively repulsed by anger in response. You see the double standard all the time. The same people who lament the angry voices on Fox News or talk radio will positively thrill to the latest Michael Moore documentary or make excuses for Democratic leaders who just can’t quite bring themselves to condemn Louis Farrakhan.

The same people who lament the angry voices on Fox News or talk radio will positively thrill to the latest Michael Moore documentary or make excuses for Democratic leaders who just can’t quite bring themselves to condemn Louis Farrakhan.

In fact, calls for civility are so frequently made in bad faith that it’s easy to get cynical. There’s perhaps no better example of public manipulation and bad faith than the cry from the left for civility after a deranged, evil young man killed six people in Tucson, Ariz., and severely injured Gabrielle Giffords. The shooting had nothing to do with politics, yet for days and weeks (even, it turns out, years), conservative Americans were told that their rhetoric had incited this deadly violence.

I was furious at the collective slander. I scoffed at the Left’s calls for civility. It felt more like exploitation than true lamentation.

So, yes, if you allow yourself to be convinced that kindness means silence, that compassion somehow requires you to cede the marketplace of ideas to other voices, or that (even worse) the very expression of your ideas is somehow hateful, then for you “civility” is surrender. If you would rather be seen as well-mannered than fight for your fundamental values, then you need to rethink your priorities.

I can promise you this: If you’re a social conservative, and you insist on believing that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, that sex is defined biologically and not psychologically, and understand that no person has a “right” to kill a child in the womb, then you’ll be called “hateful” and “bigoted” no matter how winsome, kind, or civil you try to be. While the church obviously struggles with imperfect and flawed messengers (and always will), the message itself divides and inflames.

Our true moral obligations are complicated. They’re simultaneously dependent on and independent of our listener’s response. You have an obligation to speak the truth even when the truth hurts. Harming your opponent, however, isn’t your goal. You’re seeking to persuade, yet you know the very act of attempting to persuade can also enrage. Yes, you should love your enemies, but you also have to understand they’re still your enemies.

It’s been almost 30 years since I left college, and I’m still working through these challenges. I’m still trying to discern the best way to participate in the public debate. And while there’s much room to grow, I’ve at least learned that there are three key virtues that should guide my speech.

The first is humility. The Jesus who blasted the Pharisees is omniscient. He knows the secrets of a man’s heart. The prophets who thundered against injustice had the benefit of hearing directly from God. Me? I’m just a person who “sees through a glass darkly.” I’m keenly aware of my limited knowledge and wisdom. I’m keenly aware that even when I can know the truth, I don’t always know the best way to communicate that truth.

Thus it’s imperative to read the best expression of the opposing side’s point of view. Reading only the worst (as entertaining as that can be) is inherently deceptive. It can wrongly confirm your own self-righteousness and wrongly demonize your opponent. Read the best, and you’ll not only learn, you’ll also find that your fellow citizens — people who also see through a glass darkly — often share many of your core values and seek the public good with equal (or often superior) diligence.

But humility shouldn’t be paralyzing. A person should still advocate for his or her ideas with conviction. Individual liberty and the sanctity of life, for example, are ideas worth fighting for. We can agree and acknowledge that an opponent might be brilliant and well-meaning (sometimes they’re neither, obviously), but they are still wrong. They still must be opposed.

A person of conviction is relentless in the advancement of their ideas, flexible in the way they advance those ideas, and undeterred by threats, mockery, or scorn. A person of conviction listens to critiques but understands that there is a fundamental difference between “Your idea hurt my feelings” and “You insulted me” or “You lied about me.” Expect the former. Be concerned about the latter.

Finally, it’s vital to maintain a sense of proportion. Not everything is an emergency. Not everything is infuriating. I often remember the wise words of a retired federal judge who once told me, “Even when you’re angry, endeavor to speak with regret, not outrage.” In an angry age, thoughtful concern can cut through the noise.

When I look back at my worst and most excruciating public statements, they most often suffer from a lack of proportion and perspective. For example, I once told a conservative gathering that the “two greatest threats to America were jihadists overseas and university radicals here at home.” Shortly after I made that idiotic statement, I deployed to Iraq and saw jihad up close. I’m deeply opposed to campus intolerance, but to mention university activists in the same context as al-Qaeda was silly and offensive, and it undermined my credibility.

Consider how often our political discourse is wildly out of proportion to the actual stakes of any given controversy. Tax cuts kill. Conservatism is fascism. There’s a “war on women.” Every single election is “the most important in the nation’s history.” There’s so much hysteria and nonsense in public debate that it can be difficult to discern actual emergencies when they genuinely arise.

When you combine humility, conviction, and a sense of proportion, civility is the typical result. And that form of civility is anything but surrender. In fact, I’d argue that in the long run it’s the path to ideological expansion, not retreat. It’s the path to becoming a reliable, trustworthy communicator. It’s the best way to get a hearing outside your tribe, and it still leaves room for righteous, necessary anger — while choosing its targets carefully.

Fight on, but remember — even in polarized times, grace remains a virtue. It is not weak to love your enemies. Politics ain’t beanbag, as they say, but it most assuredly isn’t exempt from the moral laws that govern us all.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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